Authors: Judy Ann Davis
Tags: #Suspense, #Contemporary
She made a gleeful squeal as she reached for a smaller box, chattering like a frenzied squirrel as she hoisted it in her arms. “We can hook it up in the spare bedroom. Fritz’s old room. There’s a second phone line coming in. Dad had it installed when we were in high school. I’ll call the phone company and get DSL, or maybe I’ll try the cable company and get us the super speed we need. Wait until you see this thing purr. I can have you linked to the whole world in matter of a few hours!”
“What fun,” Lucas said with a cynical drawl. “Linked to 6.8 billion people on the globe.” Like he needed or even wanted to converse with the whole world. He was having enough trouble with the Scranton area.
Undeterred, Elise said, “You’ll change your mind, you just wait.” She trotted to the truck with a wide smile on her face.
Minutes later, they stood in the parking lot, both with keys in hand. The smell of oil, grease, and gasoline, heightened by the unseasonably high temperatures, wafted from the pavement and open bay doors beyond. No matter how long he was away from it, the scent never ceased to comfort Lucas. Cars were the one thing he knew, the one thing that gave him security.
“It’s going to be easier to get guardianship of Todd if you can prove stability by having a home for him,” Elise said, interrupting his thoughts.
He shoved his hand into his back pocket and looked over the battered parking lot. He would have to get it resurfaced. One more thing to do. “Yeah, I know. I was hoping to get my grandmother’s cottage in order. Hell, it’s a disaster. Mike stashed a lot of his belongings there when he shut down his house in New Castle and moved into an apartment here. I piled the remainder of his things in the shed out back.”
“Maybe there’s something lying around that might help us get a handle on where his will is located, or where the money disappeared.”
He shook his head. “If there is, I couldn’t find it.”
“We should go back to the farm, so I can change into jeans,” she suggested, “and we’ll take a run up.”
Lucas looked at his watch and rubbed his temple. Ever since Elise had stepped off the plane, he felt as if his life was a video tape playing in fast forward. She moved through life filling each minute with purpose and motion, like a spinning top. “Fritz is coming in a few hours. Why don’t we take a break?”
“No time.” She headed toward the Pontiac. “I’ll meet you back at the farm. I’ll change clothes, and we’ll go together. A few hours is better than none, and without electricity, we need daylight, right?”
He nodded and moved toward the truck, pausing until she was safe inside the car and had it running. She peeled out of the lot like a high-powered jet taking flight. He grimaced as the tires squealed against the pavement, laying rubber. He’d have to ask Fritz what it would take to get her out of overdrive. He’d also have to check where he could lay his hands on a new set of tires. The car would need them before it was shipped to Atlanta.
The cottage was quaint and picturesque, straight from a storybook, Elise decided, the moment they parked the car in driveway. It was larger than she recalled. The outside was fashioned of mortar and gray fieldstone. A rock garden, now growing wild, but blooming with spring flowers of daffodils and grape hyacinths, bordered both sides of a winding, yellow brick sidewalk leading to the faded blue front door. A small white garage on one side allowed access to it from the side as well. Beside the garage, Elise saw a new doghouse had been built. It must have been Mike’s handiwork. She couldn’t imagine Lucas having time to construct a doghouse, and for what purpose?
Lucas motioned her around to the back of the house and up a flagstone walk. He pushed open the back entrance door leading directly into the kitchen.
Elise stepped inside. Immediately her eyes were drawn to the hand built, high cupboards climbing to the ceiling and the hewn beams above that lent structural support. Dusty gingham curtains, once a bright green but now mottled and faded in sections from the sun, hung limply from the leaded glass windows. An old wooden table with white chairs, nicked and yellowed, sat in the corner of the room.
“Jeez, I wonder how old this place is? It looks like mid-eighteenth century construction. It’s exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.”
“I didn’t think so when I was growing up,” Lucas said bluntly. “Everyone else had the most modern conveniences, dishwashers, fancy televisions, you name it. Your house seemed like a temple of the gods compared to this.”
She could hear a tinge of sadness in his voice. She remembered when he was growing up he had never invited anyone to his grandmother’s house, except Fritz on rare occasions. He had been too embarrassed to let anyone see he had so little.
She followed him to two rooms at the back of the kitchen. The smaller one held laundry appliances and looked like it had once been a sewing room. The other, a huge walk-in pantry with wooden counters and cupboards on both sides, was stacked to the ceiling with boxes.
“See what I mean?” he said, gesturing at the boxes.
He led her to the cozy living room with its matching fieldstone fireplace and honey-colored oak floor. Beyond were two more bedrooms of ample size, also piled with boxes. The rooms smelled musty and damp from lack of heat. “I’d do better to rent an apartment in Scranton until I can fix this up or buy a suitable house. I wonder why Mike even considered living here?”
“You’d sell this?” she asked incredibly.
“Liz, there are no memories here I can’t live without.” His eyes were dark and clouded. She watched him put up the hard shield that surrounded him like a steel cage.
“But then you’d never have met the Springers,” she pointed out cheerfully.
“True.” He smiled faintly, slouched down into an old wicker rocker, and peered at the water-stained ceiling. “You know, I tracked down my father when I was still in the army. He was working on a rig up in Alaska.”
“Did you see him?” she asked with curious interest.
“Yeah, I saw the bastard. I made it a point to. Guess what?”
“We had nothing to say to each other. Absolutely nothing! He had no remorse for leaving my mother. He said the marriage just wasn’t working, so he lit out. He was badly injured about ten years ago when the braces gave way from a rig he was working on. I was stationed overseas in Germany at the time and given family release time if I wanted it. I saw no need to rush to the side of someone I hardly remembered. Hell, he’s probably dead now, for all I know. Not that it really matters.”
“Oh, Lucas.” She tried to imagine the pain he must have felt. How could a father just walk away from his children and never look back?
“Don’t feel sorry, Liz. Your dad was more of a father to me than my old man.” He slapped both hands on the side of the rocker and started to get up.
“And your mom?” Elise asked.
“Mom died a couple of years ago.” He slumped back down in the chair.
“I’m sorry. But you were able to see her?”
“Yeah, occasionally. Every Christmas and birthday while I was growing up, a present arrived to help relieve the guilt she felt for abandoning me with Grandmother—and Mike with strangers in New York.”
“Lucas, maybe she wanted to get you both together, but just couldn’t.” Elise’s heart cried out to him. Her entire life, she had never known anything but a warm, loving family.
He laughed bitterly and his eyes had a wounded look to them. “Oh, sure, Liz, an alcoholic’s first thought is her children and their welfare. Get real.”
He stood, his face hardening as he scowled and crawled behind that protective cover of his again. “So what’s your take on this place?”
“It looks really sound. The location is fabulous. I’d even add on a huge sunroom someday. It’ll take some money though.”
“I didn’t ask about money.” He waved his hand around the room. “Can it be repaired...to livable? In a reasonable amount of time?”
“Lucas, anyone can make a castle out of a cave, given the right resources. I’m merely trying to figure out how much you really want to spend to set it right. Without a budget, I have no basis for giving an opinion.” She turned and started to walk toward the side door. If he was going to grouch at her, she had no desire to give him her two cents, let alone her creative ideas.
“Don’t walk away from me,” she heard him say. “Elise, please.”
He caught up with her in the kitchen. “Wait just a damn minute. I didn’t mean to anger you.” He grabbed her by the arm. “My, you get testy and bent out of shape easily.”
She spun and glared at his hand on her arm. He removed it.
“Testy? Bent out of shape? Listen, Lucas, I wasn’t trying to pry into your finances, if that was what you were thinking. I was just looking for some guidelines here. Contractors and materials cost money.”
“I know, I know.” He ran a hand absently through his hair, than looked around the kitchen. “It’s just there’s so much to do, only so much I can do.”
Elise heard the frustration in his voice and sighed. “Lucas, give me some figures to work with, and I’ll do what I can. This is a piece of cake. You’re talking to the paint and wallpaper diva of Winston and Sanders.” She peered at the ceiling and frowned at the water marks. “It may need a new slate roof. Roofs can be costly.”
“You’re leaving in less than two weeks,” he reminded her.
“Maybe, maybe not. Depends upon how well Dad is doing. I can always plead for a few extra weeks, though not without repercussions. But with a proper crew, I can have most of this laid out and taken care of in a reasonable time schedule. We’ll have to check the structural integrity and hire a contractor. Basically, we’re only talking repairs, paint and wallpaper, a few new furnishings and carpeting. Besides the roof, you’ll need to replace the flooring and linoleum in the kitchen and entranceways. We’ll need to get a dishwasher, certainly new appliances. A lot of the time will be consumed sorting through and removing those boxes.”
“That’s the least of my problems. We’ll just throw all of them in the shed with the others until I have time,” Lucas said.
“No, I think it might be best if we at least took a quick look through them to see if there’s anything important.”
“If you insist,” he replied, agreeably, looking relieved. “Tell you what, I’ll pay you whatever you charge at Winston and Sanders. You can be my personal general contractor and decorator, okay?”
She stepped back and felt her jaw drop. “I can’t take your money.”
“Of course you can.”
She sighed again. “I’m not going to stand here knocking heads with you. Think about costs and give me a budget. I’ll work with whatever you give me.”
He cracked the barest of smiles. “You’ll do it then?”
“Yes, and God only knows why.” She shook her head wearily. “Let’s go see if Fritz is back yet. His cooking is to die for.”
“You just ate barely two hours ago,” he pointed out, coming up behind her. He slapped her playfully on the backside. “You’re going to get fat.”
“Keep up the compliments, pal, and see how fast this cottage gets finished.” She heard a snicker as he locked the door behind them.
They climbed back into the car and rode back to the farm in silence. Elise suspected Lucas was struggling with memories from the past elicited by the visit. She silently questioned whether repairing the place would prove to be a solution to his problems or whether it would complicate them. She wondered what Todd would think of the cottage. It was comfortable and quaint, and once some modern appliances were installed, perfect for raising a child. The woods surrounding it, the huge lawn, and the small lake behind it only added to its appeal.
Minutes later when she entered the kitchen at her parent’s house, the phone was blasting out an endless series of shrill rings. Lucas had forgotten to turn the answering machine back on. She picked up the receiver, not at all surprised Chuck Sanders’s frantic voice was on the other end. She tapped the button for the speakerphone and went directly to the refrigerator for something to drink.
“Elise? Thank God, I finally reached you,” Chuck Sanders said in an exhausted tone. “Paul is laying eggs in his office.”
“Gold ones, I hope.” Opening the refrigerator, she searched the shelves.
“Don’t be cute. We lost the files for the hotel Simson and Associates backed out on. I’ve torn the office apart looking for them. I want to take a closer look at the lay-out.”
“Chuck, we filed them under new numbers when the deal fell through. Look in the dead files, last drawer from the bottom. The number starts with a six-two something.”
She heard him shuffle across the floor and open a drawer. It slammed shut seconds later. Chuck Sanders came back on the line. “You’re a lifesaver. How’s everything going in Pennsylvania?”
“Fine. If Dad keeps recovering as fast as he appears to be, we can bring him home next week. Of course, there will be weeks of therapy. He’ll have to be in a wheelchair and will have to keep the leg immobilized. I’m going to interview some nurses for in-home help.”
“We really miss you, Elise. How long do you think you’ll stay?”
“Come on, Chuck, I haven’t even been away for forty-eight hours. It’s only Wednesday. You guys promised me parole until the end of next week.”
“I know, I know, don’t remind me. It was a silly, impetuous question.”
She laughed. “And you don’t miss me, Chuck, you miss my organizational skills.”